Still getting over whatever lag it is that came with the enforcement of agoraphobia for the past year, I feel like firing off a fusillade of epigrams. Let’s see if I measure up to the requisite pithiness.
Does it really matter in the Rebel? The race matters, of course. The winner of Saturday’s $1 million Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Ark., is virtually assured of a place 50 days from now in the Kentucky Derby. Some nefarious bookmaker could make an interesting prop by asking which horse will be the post-time favorite – Caddo River or Concert Tour? It should be Caddo River (9-5 morning line). Against admittedly inferior competition he won the one-mile Smarty Jones last month by 10 lengths on the same track. He adds 110 yards Saturday, but not another turn. He has been there and done that. Instead, that two-turn challenge falls for the first time to Concert Tour (2-1), a California stalker that is 2-for-2. Yes, he is trained by six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, who would attract heavy betting if he threw tack on a love seat. The money should still come in on Caddo River, but wise guys do not control which horse’s odds show up in favorite’s yellow when the gates fly open. In any case, I hope the money pours in on both of them. My measly dollars will be on the only Grade 1 winner in the race. If the extremely well-rested Get Her Number (8-1) looks as good as he did winning last September in the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita, trainer Peter Miller could have his first Kentucky Derby starter in 10 years. Keepmeinmind (4-1), third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, will also be in my vertical bets.
Churchill vs. Nevada – draw? This may be a desert mirage, but word from both Las Vegas and Kentucky is that there actually might have been a recent attempt at negotiation between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association to end their 503-day standoff. (I could rehash the bone of contention, but it is over money. So why prolong the story with verbose prose? Now, back to the point.) I first heard early this week out Derby way that CDI might have reached out to the Las Vegas racebook cartel with a new proposal. I did not think a lot of it, since the gossip came from someone whom I did not regard as a Churchill insider. Then I heard from a legitimate Nevada mover-cum-shaker who said he had heard there was a communiqué from Louisville. Nothing has been said formally by CDI. The NPMA executive director Patty Jones has never returned any of my calls. Separately she sent a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal claiming that the NPMA “is working extremely hard to reach agreements with racetracks to ensure that all our customers have access to simulcast and the pari-mutuel pools. … However, certain tracks, including those controlled by Churchill Downs, have demanded rates to get simulcasts and pari-mutuel wagering that impact the ability of our racebook members to provide these amenities and remain profitable.” Jones was referring to cheap past performances, free drinks and “club memberships with benefits.” There was no mention of whether cheap pens or S&H Green Stamps were in peril. Anyway, watch this space. That light on the horizon might be a settlement. Or an 18-wheeler going the wrong way on I-15.
Another futures bookie is gone. This one hurts. Paul Zilm, the man most responsible for Circa Sports becoming a serious competitor in horse-racing futures, is leaving his job. His last day is Sunday, March 21. Family matters have Zilm’s attention. He is getting married next year, and before that his daughter graduates from high school. While Zilm might still have arm’s-length input on Circa’s Kentucky Derby futures, this is a body blow to the Las Vegas racebook scene. Working with sportsbook director Matt Metcalf, Zilm took full advantage of owner Derek Stevens’s credo to sacrifice a big chunk of his casino’s hold in order to give customers true value in futures betting. Circa was the best thing to happen to racing since Johnny Avello left the Wynn – and his seminal Derby futures – to go to DraftKings Sportsbook 2½ years ago. Racing futures may be strictly niche, but Circa’s dedication to them came along last spring when they were sorely needed, at least to create some competition for William Hill Nevada.
No Lasix? No problem – for some. Last year’s Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver (8-5) is the favorite to win Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Beholder Mile at Santa Anita. One problem. This will be her first time racing without Lasix. Six of the eight fillies and mares in the field are also being weaned from the anti-bleeding medication that is going out of style. Coming off the first significant break of her career, Swiss Skydiver looked worn out when she finished seventh last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. If, despite being off Lasix, she reverts to being as good as she was last summer, all the power to her. Instead, my money will be on Sanenus (4-1), trainer Michael McCarthy’s 5-year-old winner of the Grade 3 La Cañada on Jan. 9. I will sprinkle some coin underneath on Golden Principal (8-1), Baffert’s 4-year-old filly that was second to Merneith last month in the Grade 2 Santa Monica sprint. Let’s see if this already-off-Lasix angle actually works. If it does, expect me to pound it to a fault.
Enough with the weekly flavors. Much as college football does not formalize playoff rankings until late in the season, it might be a good idea for gamblers to quit deciding before the spring solstice the identity of the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. It is easy to say that Justify and his sudden appearance on the 3-year-old’s trail in 2018 is to blame for this wild goose chase. Really, he was just the smoke screen. This had been coming for nine years, since the advent of points qualifying for the Derby. Trainers with good horses know they really do not have to dip into the preps until the big ones, the ones worth 100 points to the winner and 40 for second place. Usually the top two horses in those races have enough points to get to Churchill Downs, even if that one race were the only stakes of their 3-year-old season. That was the case when Justify won the Santa Anita Derby. No wonder bettors clamor for horses like Prevalence. His comeback win Thursday in a Gulfstream Park allowance race got him to 2-for-2 for trainer Brendan Walsh. That sent his odds at William Hill down to 12-1 to win the Kentucky Derby. (He was still 30-1 at Circa.) Think about that. He is tied for the fourth choice at 12-1 and still needing points probably from next month’s Arkansas Derby, which would be his stakes debut. I feel like I should become a bookmaker.
Back at the track. To say it was good to be back at Santa Anita last weekend was putting it mildly. I felt like those YouTube videos from The Dodo, the ones that feature abandoned, isolated animals being fostered into more humane lives. Don’t we all feel that way a year and change on from Rudy Gobert and the “everybody out of the pool” cry from Adam Silver? I know, I know. They are expedient scapegoats for what was inevitable. Still, even with my blue mask and my six-foot microphone pole, I felt closer to normal than I had since my wife and I picked up some restaurant takeout food last April a whole 10 miles from home. (I was still in denial.) I even went out to dinner last week at three different restaurants in Arcadia, Calif., where the waiters and waitresses were not on top of their games, but they still deserved high marks – and good tips. It occurred to me in the one indoor restaurant where I dined with a colleague that the social distancing might not be a bad idea when things are back to normal. I certainly do not miss the nearby louts who are always at the next table.
Nothing to do with racing. An early candidate for Tweet of the Year came last Friday from Rob Miech, the Las Vegas-based author who wrote the excellent 2019 book Sports Betting for Winners. He was reacting to a live shot of the NASA rover Perseverance as it streamed images from the vast emptiness of Mars. Miech’s response: “Zzyzx Rd off-ramp sign, just out of frame, off to the left … off to the rt, beyond that ridge, Baker, Calif.” Consider that an ode to anyone who has ever made the 3½-hour drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week jockey Florent Géroux talks about his ride Saturday on Caddo River in the Rebel Stakes. Southern California handicapper/horseman Jon Lindo discusses COVID-era challenges for racehorse owners. Rampart Casino sportsbook director Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.